A chunky captive grizzly bear at Woodland Park Zoo looked on as Indigenous people from across the “Pan-Pacific Salmon Seas” shared on Monday a glimpse into the plight of the fish in their regions.

In Bristol Bay, it’s been an ongoing fight against the Pebble Mine. Meanwhile, Western Alaskan rivers including the Yukon and Kuskokwim are failing to produce sustainable runs. In Washington, relics of colonization — like dams, dikes and roads — have tamed and polluted what once were free-flowing rivers.

The news conference marked the culmination of the first International Indigenous Salmon Seas Symposium.

Dozens of Indigenous knowledge keepers, leaders and fishers from around the Salish Sea, Southeast Alaska and the Sea of Okhotsk gathered at the zoo over the weekend. They shared ancestral knowledge, ceremony and strategies to protect salmon and the people who have cared for them since time immemorial.

The goal was to reinvoke Indigenous knowledge in conversations about salmon recovery, Se’Si’Le co-executive director Kurt Russo said.

“We need to take a step back and decide: Are we willing to denature nature for our toys and our various games we play with her?” Russo said. “Or, are we going to stand with her and give her future generations a world in which she can live?”

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Everywhere, ocean acidification, drought and man-made obstructions have made it increasingly hard for salmon and their predators, like the killer whale, to survive, said Jay Julius, president of Se’Si’Le, the Indigenous-led nonprofit that organized the Monday event.

In a proclamation signed by some attendees, they pledged to honor the rights of the salmon people, support efforts to restore and protect salmon populations and call for respect and reciprocity across cultures in the effort.

Se’Si’Le works to restore Indigenous knowledge in environmental restoration efforts. Se’Si’Le means “grandmother.” The organization was born during the fight to bring home the orca Tokitae, also known as Lolita, who had been held in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium for five decades, Russo said.

JoDe Goudy, vice president of Se’Si’Le and Yakama Nation citizen, has watched streams and lakes warm and cloud with algae blooms. His friends and family who relied on fishing as a way of life have had to adapt. Sometimes that has meant moving away from the river and their relationship with the water.

Some conversations at the symposium centered on how to return land to its original state and give it back to mother nature, Goudy said. Others were about how to meaningfully communicate what the environment means to Indigenous people. 

“How do we communicate in the English language what most U.S. citizens don’t feel?” Julius said. “You don’t feel what a killer whale feels. You don’t feel what a salmon feels. You don’t feel what the river feels — because this is a new world to the citizens of the United States.”

Julius hopes the proclamation helps shift the philosophies and thought processes of policymakers. He wants them to see a world where humans aren’t the dominant species.  

“It’s one thing to get people to sign on to a proclamation — it’s a piece of paper,” Julius said. “It’s another thing … to grab twigs from here and twigs from here and create a bundle. And that bundle becomes unbreakable. And it becomes a movement.”